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Panel Supports Free Campaign TV Time

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To better reach voters without spending a fortune, City Council candidates should have access to free air time on the city’s television channel.

So decided the Thousand Oaks campaign-finance committee on a split vote at a meeting Monday night. The 16-member group is winding up its effort to find ways to lessen the influence of money on local politics.

At the same meeting, the panel set misdemeanor criminal penalties for anyone who breaks the proposed campaign finance law, which is scheduled for City Council consideration June 23.

A key decision made Monday is one that would allow City Council candidates to produce their own long-form television spots for Thousand Oaks TV, a cable television channel that broadcasts city meetings. The segments would be run together on Channel 10 at regular intervals in the two months before a council election.

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To avoid hampering protected political speech, the segments would not be reviewed for content, other than obscenity and blatant promotion of a commercial product.

“They will be 10 minutes each,” said campaign finance committee member John Relle, who helped create the free TV idea. “People can do whatever they want--they can do a song and dance, flip a chart or whatever. [Voters] can judge them by what they put on.”

The proposal was adopted after a spirited debate about whether the segments properly belonged on the city’s public access channel or the government channel. The Thousand Oaks city attorney said he believed the government channel, obtained through a franchise agreement, should not be used to air anything that isn’t a function of an existing government panel.

Because of the quirky programming on the public access channel--which has shows produced by chiropractors, atheists and others--committee member Claudia Pelletier argued that the government channel was preferable.

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“We think it’s the city’s responsibility and duty to inform all of its residents about who is running and who is going to make the city’s most important decisions,” she told her colleagues. “We are all tired of 30-second commercials.”

In the end, the committee members backed her. But no decision was reached about whether to tie the free air time to a voluntary, $25,000 spending cap, pending further study.

They also agreed to a proposal that would require the government channel to run candidate forums more than once.

Also Monday, the group unanimously approved details of the campaign-finance reform ordinance that will be presented to the City Council later this month.

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The council has final authority to accept or reject the wide-ranging proposed law that would also impose $250 contribution limits, shorten the window in which a contribution can be made and treat recalls like general elections in terms of campaign spending limits and other matters.

As part of the ordinance accepted Monday, the committee set the penalties for anyone who breaks the law. More serious violations--such as exceeding the contribution limit or failing to report contributions properly--could result in a misdemeanor conviction, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The law also would provide a more immediate avenue for punishing scofflaws through civil injunctions.

City residents who believe the law was violated could bring a suit in Ventura County Superior Court. There, a judge could order that the violation be fixed or stopped. The judge also could impose fines of up to three times the amount of money in dispute.

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The committee is also forwarding a series of recommendations to the City Council that would include creating an independent ethics commission, having an elected mayor and limiting council members to two terms in office. The free television item is also a recommendation.


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